Kigali: When you think of Rwanda, it is fair to say that cricket is probably not the first thing that springs to mind. That, however, could all be about to change.
Now, down a freshly carved out track in Gahanga, half an hour’s drive from the heart of the capital Kigali, the country has its very own purpose-built cricket ground — a superb new home for Rwanda’s fastest growing sport.
It is a simple yet beautiful ground, the three domes of the pavilion mimicking both the bounce of a cricket ball and the rolling Rwandan hills that provide its picturesque backdrop — the stunning culmination of the Rwanda Cricket Stadium Foundation’s (RCSF) six-year quest to raise the £1million required to build it.
The striking pavilion was constructed from layers of some 66,000 handmade tiles with no concrete — the same method used for Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia. The tiles were all made on site using only local materials with a team of around 40 masons assembling the domes in a process that took six weeks, without stopping, to ensure that nothing got wet.
Cricket has proved a unifying force in a country still feeling the effects of the horrific 1994 genocide. The sport was barely played back then but was brought back to Rwanda by those returning to their homeland after years in exile in countries like Kenya and Uganda.
Cricket’s lack of association with the past turned out to be a crucial factor in its popularity, while it also helped promote President Paul Kagame's aim that the country no longer is divided into Hutus and Tutsis, but instead be united as one Rwanda.
Now the first tentative roots of cricket fever appear to be taking hold in the country, the presence of the President himself at the ground’s inauguration on Saturday — a match featuring Michael Vaughan, Sam Billings and Herschelle Gibbs as well as legendary Kenyan all-rounder Steve Tikolo — ensuring that the sport has become front-page news.
While rain threatened to wash out the big day, Vaughan joking it was more like Yorkshire than Rwanda, eventually the skies cleared and the match could go ahead, Gibbs’ side ultimately coming out on top.
Previously, Rwandans had to play their cricket at Ecole Technique Officielle, the site of a notorious 1994 massacre and the location of the film Shooting Dogs, on a hugely uneven field where cow corner has actual cows grazing on it — a ground so inadequate that the national side were forced to play all their games abroad.
The new ground could not be more different, for a start it is snooker-table flat, but it will also serve as an HIV testing centre, restaurant and hub for the local community – RCSF, the British charity that built it, morphing into 'Cricket Builds Hope', a new enterprise whose mission is to change the lives and long-term prospects of vulnerable young people in Rwanda through cricket.
One Rwandan who has already seen his life transformed by the sport is charismatic national team captain Eric Dusingizimana. Now a 'Guinness World Record' holder for the longest cricket net in history — an unbelievable 51-hour effort in 2016 that saw him become something of a celebrity and earn sponsorship from a local beer company. While working as a civil engineer, he has also served as RCSF general manager.
“This is my passion and my profession,” he says enthusiastically on the eve of the stadium’s opening. “Now I am able to develop both.”
“This is a dream come true, I will be very very happy. I’m dreaming. It’s really a dream come true.
"For us cricket is not just a game, it is life. I've learnt all of my English through cricket and most of my generation learnt English the same way.”
In Dusingizimana and his female counterpart, the captain of the women’s team Mary Maina, Rwanda are fortunate to have two such enthusiastic leaders, both of whom will be involved in the ongoing work of 'Cricket Builds Hope'.
“That [51-hour net] was the moment that cricket was really born in this country,” says Alby Shale, RCSF project director. “Everyone was wanting to know what this game was and stopping Eric on the street.”
Shale is the son of former British prime minister David Cameron's constituency chairman, Christopher Shale, whose vision of building a new cricket ground for Rwanda inspired the founding of the RCSF when he died unexpectedly in 2011.
He is the charity’s third project director, but it is largely thanks to his relentless determination and drive in organising and fundraising that the construction project has now been completed.
Rwanda in fact also holds the women’s record for the longest ever cricket net as well. Cathia Uwamahoro batting for 26 hours straight earlier this year.
“We decided to break the women’s world record as well because what is really interesting about women’s cricket in this country is that not only does it not have any negative connotations because it wasn't really around before the genocide, but also because men and women play on the same pitch — there was only one pitch — you’ve got this equal playing field in Rwanda which is truly unique I think all over the world,” says Shale.
“It was important to demonstrate that women can do the same thing that men can do and our focus going forward with our community programs is specifically towards women and trying to use cricket to empower them so they can challenge gender stereotypes and gender-based violence, because cricket has got women on the back pages of Rwandan newspapers and that just doesn’t happen with other sports.”
That the country holds both is a fitting tribute to the ethos of the sport in Rwanda, the women’s game given equal standing to the men’s and used as a key tool in the empowerment of Rwandan women.
This, of course, is just the start for cricket and Rwanda, but given what has happened so far and the undeniable enthusiasm of everyone involved, it might not be that long before the two become synonymous after all.